S41 flew over the cuckoo’s nest

It’s a metaphor.

Good grief, the Berlin public transport system is a scary state of affairs. If you weren’t already troubled by the inexplicably furious bus drivers, the erratic arrival and departure times and the completely indecipherable tram system, the main thing which really poses as a threat to your safety and well-being is the inescapable fact that a public transport system is, well, public. You sit knee-to-knee (and sometimes other body parts are involved) with real Berliners, and while the majority of them are inoffensive or even pleasant, there is a universal rule which applies to at least every single U-Bahn line and S-Bahn carriage.

This rule is as follows: no matter how empty of human beings the carriage might be, there will always be at least one completely mental person making everyone else feel uncomfortable and worried. It first occurred to me relatively early on in my stay here that you meet the occasional eccentric on the trains but at the time it seemed relatively unsurprising; there are eccentrics in every city and Berlin is one of the maddest of all the major conurbations of the world. However having now spent what feels like eight years on the trains I can assure you that there is never a time when there has not been at least one unhinged member of society gibbering away somewhere in my vicinity. 

It is a phenomenon I find baffling and completely fascinating. For one thing, how do these people manage to be so mobile? How on earth do they afford it? Most of them carry all their worldly possessions in a LIDL carrier bag so old it looks like it is made out of elbow skin, most of them seem to get their income from grabbing every single bottle or can they can scrounge from the platforms for their 15 cent deposit. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: how do they have enough mental clarity to remember to buy a ticket when they are not yet aware that they have a large amount of string in their hair or that their dog is chewing their leg?  Another question which puzzles me so much I sometimes find myself genuinely furrowing my brow and shaking my head about it is this: where are these people going? They are clearly all making some important commute, as no matter how completely screw-loose they are they all seem to reach a sudden moment of lucidity when their destination station comes up and they leave the carriage with all the purpose and seriousness of a big-business CEO.

Unanswerable questions aside, I do find it genuinely mind-boggling (excuse the ill-chosen phraseology) how many completely nuts people there are circulating around the Liniennetz. Just today we had one man (complete with statutory LIDL-bag) who grumbled something incomprehensible and then proceeded to sneeze his entire respiratory system out of his body; he must have sneezed about thirty or forty times, once every few seconds, each time with a gravelly roar and an incredible amount of spit and phlegm which was literally dripping out of his handkerchief. We also had a woman looking out of the window determinedly repeating ‘Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja.’ and checking her mobile phone, and another man who well, he didn’t do anything, but he did have one eye startlingly bigger than the other.

And then there was the guy who stood in the middle of the aisle loudly growling “BAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH” until he swayed a little, blinked slowly and began instead to growl “BAAAAAHHRRRR-geld” (meaning ‘cash’), evidently realising that the reason why no-one was giving him money was because of the missing last syllable and not because he sounded like an aggressive elephant seal. And then there was the frantic young man on the train back from the tango course who loomed into my face, gestured wildly at my cheek and chin and gabbled lots of things before laughing, while the other passengers quietly urged him to be quiet and leave me alone. I never found out what he said, but I now have a nice new set of neuroses about my cheek/chin region to keep me occupied in darker times. And then there was the man who, as I made my way home from a Stammtisch, thought I was asleep and tried to gently lift my bag out of my hands; once I had clutched it to myself and blurted ‘NEIN’ he began to stroke my hair and suggest I come with him when we reach his stop. 

Be aware, new travellers in Berlin. These people are almost always talking to themselves, if not the entire carriage, and often in their very own language. They are drinking something weird (and I don’t mean alcohol; often they just have a massive pot of buttermilk to quench them) or have a dog with accessories, say a stylish neckerchief or a weatherbeaten rasta hat. Like those weird tumour-like balls of flavouring goop one finds in a bag of sweet popcorn, you will always always come across at least one. However, let us not wish for their absence or complain that they are unpleasant; they are in fact the best way to achieve any solidarity with Berliners. You will exchange knowing looks with your fellow travellers which simply say ‘Yes, here we go…just ignore it…’ and before you know you will feel a part of the Berlin community faster than any volunteer work or coffee morning could ever achieve.

It’s not perfect, but it’s mine…it’s where I spend the vast majority of my time

Note the man peering around the barrier behind the table; he is wearing a padded helmet.

Thanks to Tim Minchin for today’s title.

This is a bloody brilliant place. The thought occurs to me from time to time just as I’m walking along the street or waiting on a train platform. But Berlin has a great way of simply giving you things to be grateful for, shoving them in front of you so abruptly and with so little warning that you almost trip over them. Thus it was that when I got onto the Ring-Bahn on Wednesday to get home from Schönhauser Allee I found that the one carriage I had got into had been decorated with wild and colourful party decorations. Noticing that people were giving me funny looks over my shoulder, I turned around to see that right in the centre of the aisle the same people had arranged a picnic table displaying a homemade orange-drizzle cake, baskets of sweets and chocolates each individually hand-wrapped into take-home packets, another basket filled with little bottles of champagne and an array of champagne glasses so you could properly toast whatever you felt appropriate. Next to all of this was a disposable camera with ‘Please use!!’ written on in German. The men on the carriage all took cake; the women all shyly came and rifled through the baskets as if out of pure scientific interest before giving up the pretence and taking a handful of chocolates; the kids on the train all yelled ‘Geil!!’ and grabbed things in fistfuls. I don’t think I have ever felt such gooey-happy energy bubbling frothing around a train carriage before and I don’t suppose I will again. No-one knew who had done it or why, but for whatever reason it had happened and it wasn’t even that surprising because in this city weird and entertaining things happen on a near-daily basis.

I think essentially all Berlin residents are, to a certain degree, simply a little bit barmy. You absolutely cannot get on a train without there being at least one person in the carriage who is talking to themselves and another person who is sporting a hairstyle which looks like it was created by Salvador Dali. Bizarre things happen so often that your entire bizarreness measurement system is thrown out of whack; when you encounter three dogs wearing sunglasses in one day you just cannot live with a normal spectrum of weirdness as your reference point because you will never cease wandering around astonished and mesmerised to the point of mental collapse.

I love this city because it seems almost like it is trying to make me laugh, and more often than not it succeeds. Just the little things are beautiful and fantastic in their simplicity. I will never forget sitting outside a bakery in the Alexanderplatz train station and watching a train driver come out of the bakery with an enormous strawberry-jelly cake (breakfast, we assumed, it being 9am) and with dignified clumsiness and a quiet muttering of “Scheiβe.” throw it directly onto my bag. It is sweetly hilarious that my local bakery offers to give you a whole free bread roll if you collect 75 Euros worth of receipts from the store. There is almost always something to laugh about or at the very least raise an eyebrow, from the guy at primary school reception who takes off his jacket and pretends to the kids that he’s doing a striptease, to the guys on the U-Bahn who I see every week playing a Turkish version of ‘Hit the Road, Jack’. 

Everything here is just so interesting, and I don’t mean that in the ‘fascinating’ sense but in the ‘cannot be indifferent to it’ sense. I have found that everyone I meet has something strange to say to me, the latest being a woman I encountered today who spent the whole journey from west to east telling me about her career as flick-book artist and world’s leading flick-book scholar. She has just written and released the world’s only specialist book about flick-books and it has flick-book animations printed into the margins which show how a flick-book is made and used. (Flick-book sounds cooler in German: ‘Daumenkino’.) And I met this woman by pure accident! In my hometown you are lucky to see a pigeon fly a bit wonkily to brighten your day. 

It must be that in such a vast and contrasting metropolis the people are simply so varied and extreme that their sheer proximity to each other causes them to be unusual and do unusual things. Perhaps it is because we all spend our days shunting into high-speed metal tubes and pouring out into Crayola graffiti explosions. Maybe it has a little something to do with the fact that drinking in public is legal and widely accepted at any hour of the day. I have no idea; all I know is that I am addicted and I am definitely coming back to this nuthouse after graduation…

50th Post!!! The Adventure So Far…

At our Kita, we pride ourselves on keeping your children as safe as possible. Therefore we only use the largest and most ostentatious Alpine cow-bells in our fire alarm system.

Wow, we have reached our fiftieth post on Guten Morgen Berlin and I am so pleased with the way it has gone so far. The number of readers per post is more than ten (by a somewhat considerable amount), which was my secret hope for this project at the beginning, and I have kept it going and not allowed it to pathetically shrivel and die like a LiveJournal. I have now been in this city for seven whole months, give or take a few days here and there for toddler-detox, I have witnessed it struggling through two seasons, one meltdown and a variety of minor panics. I have lived, spoken, shopped and eaten like the natives (excepting the daily Wurst) and deeply enjoyed all the little peculiarities and differences between big burly Berlin and drab twee Britain. 

What are my conclusions thus far? First of all, that you clearly need to live somewhere for a good few years before you can even start to get used to everything to the extent that you feel fully ‘at home’ there. God knows it is so much fun to discover all the idiosyncrasies from day to day; I mean, look at the photo above. This Kindergarten genuinely has a cow-bell as its alarm system. There are great sweeping realms of things here that I think you have to be a German from birth to understand: sweetcorn flavoured joghurt, currywurst pretzel-pizzas, Berliner Weisse (a pale beer which you drink with either a radioactive green or acid pink syrup mixed into it and which I first saw being drunk by a troupe of nuns), or the inexplicable way that the most revered and famous institution in the whole city is the Blue Man Group. However, for every time I find myself standing open-mouthed in Aldi wondering at who would want to buy an electric stomach-toner as part of their weekly shop, there are moments where I realise quite how much of this culture I have already taken on and become a part of as much as they have become a part of me; the crazy rainbow-spectrum of fruit and herb teas, the pyromaniacal need to have candles everywhere all the time, the innate knowledge of exactly which supermarket I will need to go to for every specific thing I need to buy, a profound love of Kartoffelknödel…As strange and new as everything still seems every single day, I somehow feel like a member of the club now rather than the bespectacled and square inspector wandering around with a clipboard. 

I have to leave in just over three months, and that thought is indeed tragic but twinged with a very definite excitement at the things I will finally be able to rediscover after life outside the UK:
– ‘good’ television. Yes, this term does require air quotes because a colossal tranche of British (and by extension American) TV is so bad that you would better spend your time using tweezers to braid the hairs on your wrists into organic cufflinks. But good grief, the television here is terrible. The sheer number of cookery shows is amazingly huge and yet they all only seem to ever teach how to make Auflauf, a version of lasagne/casserole where you essentially just layer things up in a dish until it most effectively resembles the primordial ooze and then smother it with cream and cheese. An array of chefs with startling mustaches or unlikely-seeming blonde bobs shoot their piercing glares at the screen whilst demanding that you ladle more butter over your roast duck and throwing great fistfuls of salt into whatever it is they are boiling the heck out of. On other channels, we have the treat that is non-stop back-to-back dubbed episodes of Two and a Half Men, a sitcom so lame it makes a three-legged donkey look athletic, we have MTV-style dating and reality shows which feature people who look like they are entirely made out of polyester and who talk in ‘real’ conversation which is so patently scripted that they even know when to turn to the right camera, and occasionally something ‘hilarious’ featuring Stefan Raab. (To be fair to the Raab, this is a rare moment of greatness.)
Marmite. Oh, Marmite. You deep brown glossy goddess of toast. How I long to savour your salty deliciousness on my bread and adorning my Ryvita. I yearn to crown you with cheddar, stir you into my chile con carne or tentatively drizzle you into simmering minestrone. I resent that you cost about 7 euros a pot here, and no amount of heinously nasty Brotaufstrich (odd and oily purees designed to go on your daily Brötchen) will replace you.
– The colour green. I am pretty sure this exists, as I seem to vaguely recall it in the dark abyss of my memory, but there is no evidence of it as yet here in Berlin. Ever since The Great Freeze this winter everything has been a uniform shade of graun (grey-brown) and this makes even the cool and edgy graffiti look less like anarchistic celebrations of artistic freedom and more like a million dingy charity-shop window displays of dead people’s clothing. This weekend my dearest mother was visiting, and I took her to the Botanical Gartens since the weather was for once pleasant enough to allow scarf-free outfits; the gardens could not have looked more dead, the turf brittle and grimy and the trees contorted and cracking from what they had suffered through. Perhaps spring will come soon and I shall see living plant life again before I leave. I shall keep on sacrificing small animals at the altar in our Hinterhof and see if this helps.

But of course this is all small fry and the things I am looking forward to seeing again are nothing compared to that which I will miss. The things that you first of all learn to live with and then learn never to live without, and the things that never stop giving you pleasure and hope regardless of how tired or homesick you are.

– The frothing swathes of flowers spilling onto the pavement from the hundreds of florists all over this city.
– The astounding generosity of the German people; all us women got given free roses at the supermarket the other day for Frauentag, I somehow keep being given gifts by my wonderful German friends here of all ages and whenever I visit people I am fed like a queen, given more wine than I can consume without doing something embarrassing and welcomed with giant grins to boot. Even when I am not expected and turn up by accident the day after someone’s birthday party, for example…
– the public transport system. Germans will deride this immediately as their public transport system comes beside the term ‘Schweinerei’ in the dictionary, but for me it is amazing to use a system which is so frequent, so seldom unreliable and so cheap; Germans, picture this: at home I have a single bus which takes me to my nearest town once every hour or sometimes half hour, and it costs me almost £5 for a return journey on said disappointment. Not to mention the fact that each of the stations has somewhere to sit and somewhere where you can get coffee or a Ritter Sport.
– come to mention it, I will miss Ritter Sport. You just don’t get the same array of flavours in the UK and I do almost feel that the German taste in chocolate flavours shows a slightly more mature palate than that of the British; the Germans have almond Mars bars, espresso flavoured Ritter Sport, affordable and luscious real dark chocolate (i.e. with real cocoa solids in a decent proportion, unlike Bourneville) and the yumfest that is the entire Lindt range. The British have Boost bars, Dairy Milk – a chocolate so cloying and fatty that it cements itself to the roof of your mouth in a tar-like smear – and Galaxy, which I read somewhere is not allowed to call itself chocolate anymore because it has so little to do with chocolate in its actual recipe. Mmmm, Niederegger marzipan…
– The general honestness and easiness of the people here. In the UK one is choked by the neuroses it is your duty to suffer every time you are asked to an event you don’t want to attend or feel obliged to swallow down a vile dish someone has cooked for you or requested to do a favour you would rather sandpaper your eyelids that fulfil. In Britain I bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep life smooth; I cheerfully smiled when people drunkenly leapt through the library fire escape by my room door and thus made the whole building be evacuated, I apologised when people stamped my toes into pulp and I always, always, always ate what was on my plate even when in a restaurant so as not to cause any kind of awkward pall over the evening. Here you don’t do what you don’t want to do and you simply avoid social agonies by being honest and open, you admit what does not appeal to you and suggest a solution or an alternative and generally it works very well. You can tell people what you really think and you can have a debate in which you are clear about your own standpoint on the issue without people thinking you are flagellating all their beliefs and ethics by doing so. I haven’t experienced peer pressure once and I have cried and told my problems to a total stranger at the bus stop. I feel, in a way, that I have grown.

The question is, what will happen to the pseudo-Deutsche when she returns to her native habitat? Stay tuned… 

Now comes with visual interest! Available in stores.

Grandma, what cool things did you do when you lived in Berlin? Cardcraft.

This is a picture of a mask I made for my first ever German ‘Motto’ party – being a fancy-dress party based on some kind of motto (stop me if I get too technical) – where the motto was ‘Traum’ (dream). Now, although I am an eager dresser-upper to say the least, I am always reluctant these days to spend much time or money on good costumes anymore after being sick and tired of being the zombie bride in the ‘Mean Girls’ situation; that is to say, showing up to a party dressed immaculately and enthusiastically as the llama from ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ only to find that everyone else has either chosen a subtle, charming and attractive costume or most commonly, barely even deigned to acknowledge that it is a fancy dress party at all. But out of the two commodities I have, time and money, time is a lot easier to waste, and thus I set about making a donkey mask so that I could go as Bottom from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Tying a teatowel around my neck to look sufficiently Shakespearian and fastening a woollen tassle to my arse to be my ‘tail’, I forged off into the complete inertia of the Berlin transport system during snowy season. There is no real moral to this story; the party was a lot of fun and gratifyingly some people had also dressed up too (as a waiter or in a skiing onesie, for example); the only reason I tell the story is to show material proof of the fact that I am wasting my year abroad, not even in style.

This blog post was also originally written and used as a rather irate little burst of catharsis, which I then deemed inappropriate to publish and boring to read. Hence the lack of golden thread in this post. So stay tuned and buckle up for a selection of unconnected musings!

 Firstly, work: I have been taken on as research assistant for one of my tutors, meaning that yesterday I had the honour of yomping up to Reinickendorff to the Berlin Landesarchiv to spool through a million metres of microfilm to find some mystery photos in order to enlighten the world about Brecht. Sitting in a room that is entirely beige (including the furniture, machines, and people within) flicking through negatives of a communist journal sounds about as stimulating as chewing greaseproof paper, but god help me if I didn’t love every single pseudo-almost-squint-and-you-can-pretend-it’s-detective-work-or-CSI minute of it. I felt important, investigative, and triumphant twofold because not only did I solve the mystery but also managed to understand the instructions of the guy who taught me how to use the microfilm reading machine, who had a pronounced stutter (honestly, it was so bad he could have been Ben Stiller in a bad Ben Stiller film). The feeling of success quickly dwindled after I then turned the spooling knob too far trying to wind up the film and sent it unfurling all over the place, and then had the receptionists watch me with narrowed eyes as I ate my pumpernickel sandwich in the lobby to avoid the driving snow, and then returned triumphantly home and tried to open the front door with the locker key which I only then realised I had accidentally stolen from the archive.

So that’s that. Then, secondly, children: yet more success turned sour in the form of the world’s shyest child, who up until two weeks ago wouldn’t say a single word but would simply shyly and morosely suck her fists if asked to contribute or join in. I recently got her speaking in lessons, after which she would eagerly say any word I asked her to with the kind of tiny, bashful smile that would make a lumberjack get misty-eyed. And this week, her confidence grew even more and she began to be naughty. I have a feeling this is going to go down a bad, bad road…
However, joyous joyous wonderment came in the form of my Tuesday afternoon lesson, where the children are usually so outrageously naughty that I am lost for words about them; suffice it to say, one of the children has now shown up for multiple lessons with blood all over his face. This week I tried new tactics, and learnt two things about the class: these children respond to a) praise rather than punishment, and b) miming playing electric guitar at any opportunity. We spent the whole lesson singing songs air-guitaring like champions and they at no point tried to murder each other or myself, and even the child with the demonic grin and unnervingly slanty eyebrows was a little gem. It is true that you just have to find the right angle with every group, it’s just that some groups’ angles are more obscure than you could possibly imagine. 

Finally: the first of this year’s Christmas shopping trips was made today, and more than finding presents for anyone I discovered how anything you can imagine is made and sold and considered to be a good idea by someone. My favourite items were the 250 Euro corrugated cardboard totem pole, the ‘man-porcelain’ for MEN who want their PORCELAIN to be HAMMER-RESISTANT, the 95 Euro tray which is designed to look as good upside-down as it does topside-up so that people don’t go ‘Oh good lord, is that a…*choke*…tray??!?‘, and the little orange mouse made of vegetable-dyed leather with no apparent purpose at all which for some reason was being sold in a shop claiming to be an anti-consumerist establishment. No doubt there will be more worldview-changing shopping experiences to come, but that’s that for now; I’m off to weep over the white bathroom floor that I just mopped so that as much black cat fur as possible could become firmly stuck to it before the moisture dried.